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Thoughts on Terrence Malick’s “To the Wonder”

Thoughts on "To the Wonder"

| On Apr 12, 2013

Terrence Malick’s new film, To the Wonder, premieres this weekend. The latest from the acclaimed filmmaker of The Tree of Life, The Thin Red Line, and Badlands, is already prompting quite nuanced responses from critics and audiences. Malick’s unique, poetic style and unabashed faith are boldly on display in a film that is sure to challenge its viewers — which may ultimately be more important than whether or not they are entertained.

Craig Detweiler, of Pepperdine University, explores some of the thematic ideas Malick explores:

To the Wonder aspires to nothing less than showing us Absolute Reality in the face of brokenness. It is a sun kissed paean to the power of love that unfolds at a maddening pace. Director Terrence Malick has made a ballet, a symphony, a kaleidoscope that harkens back to the glory and simplicity of silent film. Cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki captures luminescent moments. Five editors (!) were called upon to craft the free flowing improvisation into musical passages. It is cinematic symphony cut at a music video pace–utterly original and confounding. I’ve been struggling for two weeks to summon the words necessary to respond to the beguiling spell summoned by To the Wonder. It veers so close to inscrutable, before offering us a taste of the eternal.

It is also so simple as to be frustrating. The plot driven viewer will wonder why Ben Affleck doesn’t say anything for the first fifteen minutes of the film. He is onscreen, but he is a cipher; or at most, a dramatic foil upon which hopes and dreams of eternal love are projected.

To the Wonder is about the sheer beauty of love, how it flows in at unexpected times. It sweeps us up, in a rapturous embrace that makes us want to dance through the aisles at the supermarket like Olga Kurylenko, a Ukranian Bond girl, cast here as Woman (Marina), falling for Ben Affleck, our biggest movie star, a k a Man (Neil). Ben Affleck may be America’s biggest movie star. Not the best actor, not the tops in box office, but the biggest hulking mass of a movie star we’ve got. Way bigger and taller than his rivals like tiny Tom Cruise. Poor tiny Tom would be swallowed up by the landscapes that surround Big Ben and his Bond Girl. They are given almost nothing to do other than to stare at each other in delight and glance away in disappointment. Because at the end of the day, what else is domestic life but a series of drawing near and falling apart. We are bonded by commitment that survives shifts in feeling or crushed by the ideals that cannot be maintained. First love flits about Paris. Mature love endures winter in Oklahoma. Read more…

Meanwhile, author and film critic Jeffrey Overstreet responds to the film in his own unique way with a compelling fictional story of several film fans discussing the movie:

“It’s definitely the most blatantly Christian of Malick’s films,” said Amy. “I just don’t know why he has to preach and stuff so much religion in it.”

“Because,” said Steve, surprising himself, “if you believe what Malick believes, then there’s no separation between religion and the rest of life.”

Bruce’s dark eyebrows lifted.

“In his view, you can’t stuff Christianity into a movie any more than you can stuff light into a photograph. He sees through Christian lenses, and so everything is suffused with Jesus. Even if To the Wonder didn’t have a priest in it, it would still be all about faith. All that stuff at Mont Saint Michel… that’s a religious place, and a landscape that begs to be taken as a spiritual metaphor. You can climb those paths through tradition and history and religion and sacred expression and almost touch the heavens. Or, you can walk the other way, out into the open, into the gray, where everything loses definition, and where the ground eventually becomes quicksand and the tide comes rushing in. I’ve been there. I’ve seen that happen. The whole place seems… designed to mean things. I think Malick’s one of those believers who wants us to see that everything in the world means something. Everything’s telling us about God, either by fulfilling what God wanted it to be and do… or by resisting what God wanted and thus creating a shadow that speaks of God’s absence.”

Dennis and Amy stared at Steve in surprise. Bruce looked like he’d just seen a burning bush, and he was gaping in delight.

“Don’t get me wrong,” Steve added. “I’m not saying I believe in God. I’m just saying… that kind of vision is appealing to me. A lot more appealing than… I don’t know… one where you pray and you win a football championship. Or one in which you single out who the bad guys are and march out to war in God’s name.” Read more…

Finally, Malick even inspires Roger Ebert in this final review before his death…

A more conventional film would have assigned a plot to these characters and made their motivations more clear. Malick, who is surely one of the most romantic and spiritual of filmmakers, appears almost naked here before his audience, a man not able to conceal the depth of his vision.

“Well,” I asked myself, “why not?” Why must a film explain everything? Why must every motivation be spelled out? Aren’t many films fundamentally the same film, with only the specifics changed? Aren’t many of them telling the same story? Seeking perfection, we see what our dreams and hopes might look like. We realize they come as a gift through no power of our own, and if we lose them, isn’t that almost worse than never having had them in the first place? Read more…

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